A favorite tall tale regarding philanthropic gifts to local arts organizations involves dowager Patricia Corbett and the Cincinnati May Festival, the prestigious annual choral music festival. Efforts by May Festival administrators and staff to update the series program book hit an insurmountable obstacle when told that Corbett had built bookshelves specifically for holding her collection of May Festival programs. Any changes in the booklet size would make her private bookshelves obsolete, so the design changes were promptly tossed out the window.
In matters of hands-on donations, the tale of the bookshelves is appropriately quaint, much like the grand lady of Cincinnati's Classical Music community. If Patricia Corbett wants the May Festival programs to remain a certain size, she's paid handsomely for the privilege.
Arts funding has become less a public enterprise due to deficits in state and city budgets, and private donors are being asked to make up the differences. Good philanthropy occurs when the wealthy feel obligated to give back to the community that helped generate their financial success.
They support organizations that reflect their own beliefs and interests and donate the funds granting organization leaders carte blanche control of the monies. The ideal is to make philanthropic gifts to groups you believe will spend the money wisely and creatively.
When people or private companies deem their donations as something other than a gift — perhaps more of a marketing investment — they have a strong argument for determining where the money goes and how it will be spent.
The impact goes beyond bookshelves and program dimensions.
The play that ends the Rosenthal New Play Prize, an award from husband-and-wife philanthropists Lois and Richard Rosenthal that financed the annual production of a new script at the Playhouse in the Park since 1989, is Brian Dykstra's Hiding Behind Comets. All sensible judgments involving its quality will be reserved until its first performances in March 2004, but the public explanation regarding the Rosenthals' decision to end the prize revolves around the basic fact that they didn't like Dykstra's script.
I imagine that the Playhouse is run as an efficient business with the understanding that the Rosenthals, who give generously to the organization, are clients to be kept happy under all circumstances.
It's a tough commercial world. There are few true gifts anymore. There are marketing investments and individuals who need to be convinced that their money is speaking well on their behalf.
In the case of Hiding Behind Comets and the Rosenthals, they determined that the Rosenthal New Play Prize could not be a play they disliked, no matter how enthusiastically it was supported by Ed Stern, the Playhouse's producing artistic director.
The Rosenthals can take their money wherever there are administrators willing to cede artistic control and who will do whatever it takes to keep them, the clients, happy.
On a somber, realistic note, it's worth mentioning that no 11th hour monies have arrived yet to completely fund the new play prize. Hiding Behind Comets will still be staged, but the majority of funds will come out of the Playhouse's operating budget.
For Stern, a champion of new plays, the hard-knock lesson over the Rosenthal New Play Prize must continue to sting as he's left to wonder where his supporters will come from. Such diminished support risks pushing the Playhouse toward programming that's audience-friendly, respectful, safe and commercial.
Will Stern feel the need to stage plays that will cover their own expenses? Will he see all future gifts as marketing support that will vanish if the plays don't serve the donor's needs? It would be a crime for style and substance to ultimately take a back seat to box office.
The curtain has come down on the Rosenthal New Play Prize. In the shadows, Stern must be wondering how to keep the Cincinnati Playhouse on the cutting edge.